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Aboard HMS Swiftsure, at anchor
Robert Hughes stirred on his cot. They were at anchor and the night was still and quiet, or he would not have been able to hear the low murmuring of Hal's voice from the next cabin. Tropical heat suffused the wooden womb in which he lay, made him kick off his one sheet and sit up.
He had never claimed to be a good man. Quite the opposite, he was as deep-dyed a rogue as a man could hope to meet in the British Royal Navy. So he did not hesitate to swing himself out of the narrow coffin of his bunk, land light-footed on the warm planks, and gently move aside the sea chest that lay against the canvas partition wall.
"Ah..." It was a little insinuating murmur, hot as the night, Hal's woodwind-deep voice broken from its daylight authority and gasping, breathless and needy. "Please..."
I'm doing this for his own good. Behind the chest, the canvas wall had been ripped, and a hole half the size of Robert's fist stood out from the shaping battens. He had found it there six months ago and not reported it, because sometimeslike tonightthe wanting grew too much. Then he would draw the chest back and kneel here, with his face to the gap, watching Hal Morgan sleep.
It was a stolen intimacy, but those were the only kind he had so he cherished them.
Hal had a child's fear of darknesshe slept with a lantern freshly trimmed above him. Always had, in all the five years they had served together. Indeed, it was his shadow on the white canvashis silhouette, dark against the pale background, that moved as he moved, bending down to unbuckle shoes, drawing its shirt over its head, showing itself, slender and well shaped and unselfconsciousthat had moved Robert to encourage the fraying hole.
Even now he would touch the silhouette and imagine touching Hal's spirit or his naked skin. He dreamed about it at timesof Hal asleep in the other room, and his shadow reaching out from the wall, coming to enfold Robert and fill with tenderness all the places inside that ached when he watched it.
But it seemed Hal had his own dreams.
Scrunched up in the tight corner of his tiny room, Robert kissed the fabric, then put his eye to the hole.
Dim lantern light seemed bright to him after the darkness of his own sleep. He made out Hal's sheet, crumpled on the floor where he had kicked it off, allowed himself to look up by careful degrees, rationing the torment and anticipation.
Hal's hand firstheld at an awkward angle where his elbow must be jammed into the raised edges of the cot. Such beautiful hands he hadexpressive, mobile, clever hands, tanned and capable. Awake, they punctuated his speech with movement and emotionexclaiming, illustrating, never still. Here, drawn in sepia by the brown light, his fingers clenched and released as though they held tight to a lover's flesh.
Quietly, Robert reached up and touched the place on his own shoulder where Hal clung demandingly to his dream-lover. A wave of arousal, oily as despair, curled up from his balls to his throat, drying his mouth. I should stop looking. He would knock me down if he knew.